Women at the Wall

by Rabbi Jacqueline Romm Satlow, Director Center for Jewish Culture, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Six women were arrested this morning (November 15, the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev) while praying at Judaism’s most holy site because the police did not like their attire. While I was not arrested, I was there praying with them. There were almost 100 women participating in the service. The police filmed us. Many of the women were wearing prayer shawls (talitot). Some of the women were wearing their prayer shawls like scarves. This was apparently acceptable to the police. Some of the women were wearing their talitot they way men do, hanging down their backs. Many, but not all of these women were arrested.

“Women of the Wall” was founded in 1988 when a large group of women attending the International Jewish Feminist Conference went to the Kotel (Western Wall) plaza to pray as a group. They did a traditional Jewish service which of course included reading from the Torah. They were attacked and the police did not do much to defend them. The case wandered its way through the courts of Israel for many years.

The Western Wall site (the Kotel) is all that was left of the Second Temple in Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It was originally one of the retaining walls of the Temple. Jews have been visiting it to pray for 2,000 years. From 1948-1967 it was in Jordanian territory and the border between Israel and Jordan was a hostile one. Jews were forbidden to visit during those years. In 1967 the entire Old City of Jerusalem, including the site of the Western Wall, was captured by the Israeli army. The photograph of Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall in 1967 is famous and quite moving. Today, the plaza is large and beautiful.

More than half of the sizable space is open so that large groups can congregate. The space closest to the wall itself is divided into a men’s section and a women’s section. Men can choose to pray in groups or individually.Women pray only alone. Group prayer for women is what “Women of the Wall” has been fighting for since the 1980s. The men’s section is 3-4 times larger than the women’s section.

Over the years that I have been traveling back and forth to Israel, the details of gender segregation at the Kotel have varied. When I first visited Israel in the early 1980s, the lack of equality between the two spaces bothered me, but I did not know how much worse it could get. Since the ’80s, “modesty police”, who follow women around scolding those whose sleeves or skirts show too much skin, have replaced an unobtrusive security guard. The wall dividing the men from the women has grown taller. Women had always watched boys become Bar Mitzvah by standing on chairs and peering over the divider. Seven years ago, I noticed screens at the top of the dividers making it impossible to see over it. The women’s section has gotten smaller, and because it is so small, it is very crowded. There are now separate entrances for men and for women. In 2012, the situation has improved slightly. There are still separate entrances for men and for women, but the women’s section is slightly larger than it has been. The height extension on the mechitza (divider) has been removed. I hear rumor that the modesty police are still there, I have not seen them recently.

Women of the Wall lost their court case several years ago. The court did say that women have the right to pray at the Kotel, but not to be provocative. Torah, shofar, tefillin, and talitot have all been forbidden in the Kotel plaza or in the women’s section. As a compromise position, the extension of the Kotel which had been an archeological site was fixed up. Women or mixed gender groups can now pray in the archeological garden, called Robinson’s arch. It is separate but not equal and not really a substitute for prayer in the actual Kotel plaza.  Robinson’s arch needs to be reserved in advance and costs money each time. Unlike the Kotel plaza itself, it has no chairs or prayer books or restroom facilities.

Despite their unhappiness, “Women of the Wall” has been following the law. Every month this group of women prays the morning service in the women’s section of the plaza. Talitot are worn as scarves, no tefillin, no shofar, no Torah. Then the group goes over to Robinson’s arch for the Torah service. Today the police decided that those 6 women were being provocative and wearing their talitot like men do. The police hauled them right into the police station. When it came time for the Torah service, the rest of the group marched the Torah over to the police station to read and sing outside the windows of the station. We wanted the women being detained inside to hear us and to know that we support them. Unfortunately and perhaps not coincidently, the city happened to choose that moment to bring in a large truck and to prune the tree outside the police station using very loud equipment.  They managed to drown out the sound of our prayers. The women were detained until they signed a statement that they would not visit the Kotel or do anything provocative for 30 days. Those who refused to sign were still being held when I had to leave.

Shacharit, morning worship services, with a large group of sincere passionate women at the Kotel was a very moving experience. Praying outside the police station with the noise of the tree pruning was less so. With all the issues facing Israel and the world, why the police would use their energy to arrest Jewish women praying with sincerity at the holiest site of the Jewish people is a mystery to me.

I plan to be there again next month.

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